Friday, December 21, 2007

What's in a name?

One of my favorite questions to ask people who are prone to 'intelligent' discourses is the meaning of his/her name. I get awkward pauses and sheepish grins more often than not while I have my two seconds of suppressed glee. Anyway, it's only a matter of time before I get the question directed at me, so I set about discovering the meaning of "Balaji". It didn't seem like a difficult task, given that it is the most common name in South India (at least according to me).

All the senior 'Sanskrit people' (Sastrigal's who unwittingly make eye-contact with me) I asked started enthusiastically - "'Bala' means 'young'" (I had figured out as much from my incredibly inadequate Sanskrit education in school). And then, the awkward pause again. The conclusion they finally arrived at was that "Ji" is the usual suffix meant to signify respect (similar to 'Mr.'). 'Mr. Young'? Really? I mean, 'the Sun who shall smite his enemies with a thousand rays' is a bit much, but, 'He who shall be interesting to a damsel' is a reasonable expectation, don't you think? And imagine explaining the name without any hair or teeth. Sigh. If I get a chance to talk to God, I'd be like, "Dude. You live for a bajillion gajillion years. We get it. Do you have to rub it in?"

Then again, there's the opposite of the mundane. Names that make your jaw drop. Or lock up. I can't help but feel sorry for the guy named Yadnya Valkya (not kidding). Google, trusty as always, turned up four results, even suggesting a spelling correction. It's the name of an authority on Hindu adoption law, according to this book from 1868. The poor guy must have not been able to say his name until he was in fifth grade or something. "Hey guys, here's Mr.I-can't- say-my-name. Let's go watch him drool" would be a good summing up of his early years at school. And God help that guy if he comes to North America.

What could be worse than an unpronounceable name? A name which everyone can pronounce? And then some - Moon unit Zappa, her sister, Diva Muffin (oh, the horror!) and Pilot Inspektor would be willing to comment, I think.

Given the existence of such, er..., imagination in this world, I have been more or less happy about my name. When introducing myself to people here in the U.S., I usually go with 'Bala' (the shorter it is, the better. You will be repeating it at least twice, so names longer than two syllables are strongly discouraged). Now, in all my years in India, I've been used to people not even waiting for me to finish. They usually know the name by the time I say 'Ba-'. I didn't expect any such recognition here in the U.S., so, I was pretty surprised when the response I got was "Really? That's your name? ...". These kinds of pauses are almost always bad, so I asked what it meant, with some hesitation. All I got was a mysterious "Never mind. We use it sometimes".

So Google it was, again. The first one I got was from the Cassell's Dictionary of Slang -

bala n. (early - mid 19C)Coarse or senseless talk (Cornish bal, loud talking)

bala n. a balaclava(full beard)

Mr.Young isn't great, but I felt it still had the edge over SailorMouth or Shaggy. So, I continued looking, hoping the name had a coolness factor in some obscure language. I turned to Urban Dictionary, the encyclopedia of English slang. Sure enough, there was a page on 'bala'. The first thing that caught my eye was the 'Related' section. Now, Urban Dictionary is the place where you look for obscure references from sitcoms and choicest insults to hurl at the friendly neighborhood internet troll. It was the last place where I expected to find my full name -


1. (n.) Thug Of Thugs; OG of OG's. Born in 1990 on the streets of India, he quickly came to america and quickly gained respect form his wise decisions, intellect, and bravery. Later he changed his name to, BallaG. Even though it is spelled differently it is still pronounced the same.

2. (v.);BallaG; to kill or, more street, to cap an ass.

3. (adj.)A person who is smart and makes quick decisions. One who is brave and fears nothing also one who is very athletic.

I come all the way to Urban Dictionary to find that the page is about a guy who is from my country. Anyway, I don't wear jeans around my knees or listen to hip-hop music, so BallaG is also pretty much out.

And this one is pretty much self-explanatory.

Bala: Means "to do something half-assed" in Taiwanese, and is a homophone of the word for "guava".

So, all that was left was the page on 'Bala'. I wasn't too optimistic after MegaBeard and Thug of Thugs -

1. bala

It's spanish for bullet

Nice. We're getting somewhere at last. Further random clicking led to this at Wordreference ( a whole forum for word nerds - where do I sign up?!) -

here are some slang possibilities in (Mexican) Spanish for "you are a pistol"

eres una pistola (literally)
eres un tiro
eres una bala

(meaning that he is cool/smart/too clever ,etc)

Ahh. Oasis. Desert. Vacation. Student. Heat. Minneapolis. Things like that. So meet Mr. Young Bullet/Mr. Cool/ Mr. Clever Young. I'll stop now. So people! Google yourself. It's OK. If you find anything interesting, leave a comment here.

A message to all the people lucky enough to welcome a new life/decide the course of someone's life - Please think of the children! Control the urges to create your longest lasting pun. Really. You cannot call your kid Wind O'Pane, Tea Baggins or Long John. It's seriously not bala.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The $300 plastic card

This is a rather long story without commercial breaks. So please blink and look away frequently to get the soap out of your eyes.

$300 - credit card? gift card? No. It's a Driver's License. This is the obligatory fleeting view of the present before the long flashback, so here goes.

April 2006

All the guys around me were planning to take the written test to get a Learner's License (having secured financial aid and internships for the summer, this was the next "peak" for the PIGS to conquer). It was the usual once we found a copy of the Driver's Manual on the internet (for free, of course) - try to remember every word on every page, try to trap other people with 'trick' questions, take pride in reciting 3 decimal places, revise the material in the bus all the way to the DMV (Dept. of Motor Vehicles).

I cleared the test and was feeling pretty good - only 3 months in the US and on par with people who had come in Fall 2005. I paid $23 for the Instruction Permit, already thinking about how to compensate (eat more free pizzas, shop for bland cereal for a few weeks, etc.). Three of us scheduled a drive test on the same day, ignoring the advice of the elders.

May 2006

My roommate was kind enough to give his car, so the three of us showed up for the road test on the same day. When it was my turn, I started by setting off a blast of hot air in the officer's face. Didn't know they would be asking about all the knobs in front. And then I turned with a flourish from the wrong lane, sealing my fate for that day. Anyway, only one of the 3 got his license that day, so I didn't feel too bad.


Next followed the usual period of procrastination - for the whole of summer, fall till I had successfully forgotten whatever little I had learnt for this test.

May 2007

I finally scheduled another appointment. By that time, all the "elders" with cars had left for the vacation, forcing me to rent a car. And what day should I choose but the start of a long weekend. The rental company did their usual thing - push the car no one would rent onto the unsuspecting guy. So there I was, for my next test, in an uncomfortable cross between a car and a minivan. All I could see when I turned back were the car's huge C-pillars. It was a surprise that I didn't knock over anything bigger than a cone in my parallel parking. "Get to know your car", said the officer, without any sympathy for the $70 that I had just spent.

($23 + $70 = $93)

June 2007

I reached California, happy that I didn't have to rent out a car again for my test. I could drive the car that my company had been nice enough to pay the rent for. I showed up for the written test again, finished it, all the while wishing that road tests were this easy. All I got for the $27 was a piece of paper with my name on it. I confidently made an appointment for a road test since I had already driven this car for more than 200 miles without hitting a cone or the curb.

($93 + $27 = $120)

I was at the DMV early on June 17, for my road test. There was a pre-test screen when the lady at the counter chose to read the entire 3 pages of my rental contract. She settled on the point which said, "This car shall not be used in races, contests or tests". Funny how government offices in any country (well, at least the 2 I've lived in) choose to make the lives of the people who come to them difficult. She chose to interpret the 'test' as a driver test, while it was obvious that the contract referred to a test of the car. So I was turned away this time without even taking the car out of the parking lot.

I made another appointment for the 27th of June. When I showed up that day, I thought I would outwit the lady (has this ever worked?), so lingered around in the queue until I could go to another person. This time, I didn't hand over the rental contract and gave him only the receipt for the rental. Apparently, this guy did not have much to do that time of the morning, so he ended up calling rental office and asking him if taking the test was allowed. Of course, the rental guy was only too happy to say no.

There I was, my 'brilliant' plan foiled, grinning sheepishly at the appointments guy. He just assumed that I must be a really bad driver and gave me my third appointment for July 9.

July 2007

July 9
This time, I wasn't taking any chances, so I went to another car rental and asked him if I was allowed to take a test (I know, stupid). The guy said that he didn't give out permission letters. Weird how I am trusted to drive the car alone all over the state but not in a test, accompanied by a DMV officer, at speeds of under 35 mph. So I showed up at another rental company (it was next door, thankfully) and asked them for their smallest car. The guy at the counter was only too happy to spot a guinea pig without an online reservation. "We are very short on cars now, Sir. I can give you one for $60" (usual rates are around $40-$45). I tried to suppress my groan and made up a story about picking up a friend from an airport and returning the car in 2 hours.

He led me to a gleaming white Ford Mustang (double groan). "We are offering you a free upgrade. Have some fun!". Of course, the real reason was that no one would take the car because no one longer than 3 feet could fit in the back seat. I didn't have a choice, so I took the car and showed up again at the pre-drive check. There was a new lady at the counter. She asked for the letter and I said, "He told me that this company allowed driving tests", pointing to no one in particular. Fortunately, she didn't follow up and waved me through. I already felt like I had got a license.

I started a road test for the first time in California. The Mustang started with a rumble that echoed throughout the DMV. The rest were looking strangely at the guy who showed up for a road test in a sports car. The car moved along at 20 mph, probably the slowest it went since an engine was dropped under its hood. I completed the test without any problems, feeling very good about myself.
The officer looked up from the score sheet and said "Your main problem is speed. You drove too slowly". Then she checked 'Speed' under 'Critical Driving Errors' with the comment, "Driver drove too slow impeding traffic flow". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So I said the usual "Thank you" and went to the appointment desk once again. The guy couldn't believe that someone would fail the test by going too slow. He offered his part - "Too slow?? My wife would've run you over". After thanking him for his great piece of wisdom, I made an appointment for the next day.

All this happened in about an hour's time, so I took the car back to the rental and tried to elaborate on my picking up a friend story. I mentioned that I had the date wrong and he would be actually coming tomorrow. I wasn't hoping for anything, but the guy agreed to take half off the rent (wow, I can actually bluff). So the bill was reduced by about 25$, coming to

($120 + $76 = $196)

I mentioned this to my friend who couldn't stop laughing at how I failed the test by going too slow in a Ford Mustang.

July 10
I went to the car rental again, this time with an online reservation. The guy was a bit disappointed that he didn't get to charge his usual $10 premium, but gave me the car anyway. It was a much saner Kia Optima this time. The same person was there at the pre-drive check counter and I was a familiar face now, so I was just waved through without the usual uncomfortable questions. I had to pay a $6 fee since it was a 'retest'.

I started the test again, praying that I wouldn't add more to the total of the most expensive Driver's License ever. I was careful to stay exactly at the speed limit on the road. However, I've never managed to turn without stopping at least for a moment. Guess my mom's advise is embedded too deep in my brain (really). So I was nervously glancing at her sheet from time to time. She was managing to cover it with marks when I thought I hadn't made any mistakes. The test allowed 15 errors for a Pass, so I wasn't too scared.

The test ended. "You need to work on your turns", she said. She already had three comments on the paper. "Driver turns too slow". "Lane change too slow". "Stops unnecessarily". And she had marked speed for 4 of my 8 turns, marked unnecessary stop for 2, and marked speed for 2 lane changes. 15 didn't look like a lot, given my 8 mistakes due to speed. She counted the marks twice and finally wrote 15 on the sheet. "You barely passed. Go in and collect your license". After thanking her profusely with tears of joy (well, almost. there were also tears from my wallet), I went in and got my next piece of paper.

So to bring this rather sorry tale to an end, I returned the car ("You are freaky fast") to the rental, I paid $93. Since I had told him that my friend had come today, there was no half rate this time.

$196 + $6 + $93 = $295 + $5 (gas charges? Since 300 is THE number nowadays, I couldn't stop at 295)

Here I am, still waiting for my expensive plastic card. I've understood one thing though - procrastination makes you pay (literally). Should I write that down? Well, maybe tomorrow...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

To strike a chord...

Ever wondered why your dad swears that his favorite song from 20 years ago is the best one ever made? When the new AR Rehman song seems so obviously better? You are going to be saying the same thing about the AR Rehman song to your son 20 years from now.

What we don't notice most of the time are the feelings we associate with a particular song. When you hear the song which you heard on a vacation with your friends, you always feel happy no matter what. Being a grad student far away from home, songs about home and parents suddenly acquire new meaning. I especially felt this with a couple of songs -

Luka Chuppi - Rang De Basanti

A translation - for the fellow hindi clueless

Luka Chuppi bahut huyi saamne aa ja naa
Enough of hide and seek, come before me.
Kahan kahan dhoondha tujhe
I searched for you everywhere.
Thak gayi hai ab teri maa
Your mother is now tired.
Aaja saanjh hui mujhe teri fikar
Its evening and I'm worried about you
Dhundhla gayi dekh meri nazar aa ja na
Hazy is what my sight is, come to me

Yahaan sab kuch hai maa phir bhi
All that I want is here maa... but still...
Lage bin tere mujhko akela
Loneliness is what I feel here without you.

Read the full translation here.

Listen to Luka Chuppi -

Another very poignant song about how quickly life passes you by is 100 Years by Five for Fighting. I first heard it in a credit card ad - probably the only ad I look forward to here.
This song also has wonderful lyrics, especially at the end -

I'm 99 for a moment
Dying for just another moment
And I'm just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are
15 there's still time for you
22 I feel her too
33 you’re on your way
Every day's a new day...
15 there's still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey 15, there's never a wish better than this
When you only got 100 years to live



When I listened to this song I was reminded of a conversation a few days back when I was asserting to an incredulous friend of mine about how I have never had crushes/LIKED anyone all my life (yeah, its true). I felt sad about this for the first time when I heard this song. Then again, living half the world away from home with the restriction of Indian girls only (slowly broadening from South Indian. Maybe, this too, shall pass ;)) means that it has to be one among probably 5 girls in this building (Grad school isn't exactly a social experience).

And having dismissed this scary thought as soon as it appeared, the only option left is the dreaded LD (long distance) - the single biggest scourge of the bank balance of grad students. Somehow, even after watching the girls here have whispered phone conversations for hours (yeah they are already taken. I like to think that I dismissed the thought.) this doesn't appeal to me. One more messenger window. One more smile for Reliance. Like I need this when I'm already in the middle of missing my parents.

And two lines enough to make Wordsworth turn in his grave -

Of what use is another tug at your heart
When what you miss most is the hug?

So I'm back to playing the two songs which will always carry these thoughts along for me.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The cake or the icing?

Before I go any further,

I haven't made any cakes.
My experience with cakes is restricted to having watched a few being made and eaten a LOT.

Would you like to make the cake or the icing?
Making a cake for the first time is daunting -

  • Read the recipe
  • Wonder if you can do it
  • Think about a hard, burnt cake atleast 3 times
  • Finally decide to attempt it
  • Do the "Oh, I added a little too much of this, so I'll add some more of that" thing many times and end up with much more batter than you actually wanted to
  • Pour it into the baking dish and keep it in the oven and pray
  • Open the oven every five minutes worrying if you'll burn it
  • Take the first one out while its still gooey and burn the second one
  • Start to produce something like a cake from the third time

What would happen with the first-time "icer"?

  • Admire the beautifully done cake and often, the first layer of icing
  • Attempt to make a flower pattern with the icing in one corner
  • You mess it up but no one notices the small thingie in the corner
  • It tastes good anyway
  • Eventually you start making good flowers but nobody seems to notice that either
  • Many people entirely avoid eating the icing

The cake - you have to learn a lot, its tough to make, it takes a lot of time and effort before you produce something edible.
But everybody notices it, eats it once it tastes good and remembers that you made it.

The icing - you can produce something very fast and with little preparation.
But the cake's already there anyway and nobody asks who made the tiny flower on the left corner. Only very few people like ever-hungry grad students eat it.

So what would you choose in your research career? The cake or the icing?

Friday, July 29, 2005

Communication: Physical and beyond

I'm sitting in front of my PC now - talking with my mother on the couch behind me. Chatting with my friend 300 kilometres away through the internet. Looking at my sister's face from halfway around the world. I feel a closeness as if we were all at the same place. How is this possible? Man's hunger for socializing and some people who chose to do something to sate the hunger.

What would life be like if all this didn't exist? What if it took two weeks to exchange pleasantries? Though this sounds like a situation from a typical doomsday movie, it isn't so outlandish. Matter of fact, my parents lived like that. Even I did, until a certain age (an age at which I didn't talk to anyone anyway, so didn't make a difference. My sister was within punching distance, though).

Amma (mother, in Tamil) speaks fondly of the letters she wrote. I have a whole collection of letters from my sis (another one). Reading those letters always feels like a dose of Nostalgin (that's a drug for producing instant nostalgia).

All fine for halcyon remembrances. But what about crunch situations? Kishore's met with an accident. Come as soon as you can. Yeah. Fat lot of good that would do three days later when it finally reaches the guy. The alternatives: Telegrams - Accident. Come immediately (what in the world does that mean? Are you inviting the guy to have an accident?); Trunk Calls: Call operator. Give him the number and city. Stare at the phone and bite until you have no nails left. Finally, your phone is connected and you have to scream at 50 dB to get through (telegram's much better. atleast the sender stays out of hospital).

Why would I say all this? Because this span of time always comes up - when Amma talks about my elder brother (amma's nephew, but only for details' sake). My mother has fed me bits of information about him - How she loved him dearly and vice versa. He had her all to himself until my sister was born. How he became jealous of all the attention the baby got (quite natural for a five-year old). How he always impressed everyone with his acuity. How he could identify unlabelled cassettes. How he loved his lily plant.

Why am I learning all this from Amma? Can't my brother tell me? No, he can't. Because Achalesh Srikanth is no longer here. I'll never learn how to identify unlabelled cassettes. I'm talking about something as banal as communication in my picture of my brother for a very important reason - no quite so banal.

We Indians are quite spiritual - we are always looking for "signs" to show us the existence of a higher power (atleast, I always look). We end up being more right than wrong. About six months before I was born, Amma was in Bombay, three states away from her nephew in Madras, sleeping soundly when she had the strangest dream: It was Achalesh saying "Naan Achal vandhirukken, Chitti" (It is me Achal. I have come). Why would he say that?

A day later, she got a trunk call from Madras that her nephew had been hospitalized. Soon after, he passed away. While the physical communication took such a long time, the metaphysical one reached her much in advance. She thought about her dream a lot after that. According to our shastras, a soul usually spends around 5 months in limbo before being reborn as someone else. And I was born 4 months after that. Was the dream a sign? Am I me? Or the brother I almost had?

I believe such signs are there to guide us in our lives. We shouldn't be so arrogant as to ignore them. Not all the stuff in this world need proving. Maybe, the proof is beyond us. We should start taking more notice of the metaphysical - which is the fastest means of communication; and always will be.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Baby talk. Or is it?

What is it with toddlers these days? The maturity and learning rate of today's babies is simply mind-boggling. A movie called Look Who's Talking (one of my favourites) which tries to look at this world from a baby's point of view. There may be more to that movie than just a good laugh. You maybe hearing voices from your womb before you know it. Parents today try to prepare their kids in advance to face the cutthroat competition everywhere.

But is their any limit to this advancement?
Three and Four year old children do math faster than me - apparently they go for 'abacus' classes on all weekends. So that's how they spend their schooldays.

So what about holidays?
Wake up, play, watch TV, eat, play, play, sleep, right? In your dreams. What would happen to the child's 'edge' he/she wasted so much time? No Sirree! Go for intensive coaching classes. A public speaking course, maybe? After all, the child needs confidence while saying "Ba, Ba, Black Sheep" in front of his/her classmates.

So this leads us to the chicken and egg question: Is this early development because of competition or is the competition because of the development? Whatever it is, one thing's sure. The wonderful, carefree childhood is under serious peril. You could return home one evening and find the house empty. Why? Extra classes after school for your kid. You could end up yearning for time with your kid instead of vice-versa. Is it really worth it? Consider a situation ten years on.

Mom: Hey Sanjeev, wait up.

Sanjeev: What Mom? I'm late for my IIT coaching classes.

Mom: Sanjeev, what do you remember about your childhood (expects a teary smile, maybe and a hug, and sweet reminiscences)?

Sanjeev: Huh, let me think.

(thinking) 'play' school - check
abacus - check
kindergarten - check
weekend abacus - check
middle school - check
(hmm, all smooth until now)
high school - (under the top 10 a few times, but nothing serious) check
pre-IIT coaching - (scraped through) check(hesitant)
higher secondary - (Shd get centum, or else...) still trying
IIT coaching - (lots of single digit scores) (a doubful case)

I'm sorry Mom, I tried to remember, but apart from the 75% in Maths in my seventh standard, I was more or less near the top ten...

Mom:(struck speechless, mouth open)

Sanjeev: Oops, I'm late for my class Mom. Don't wait up. I'll be late.

This could be you in ten years time. Don't deny the child his/her childhood. You'll be the loser later.

Now, moving away from that rather grim situation, some possible newspaper headlines in the future.

Jan 10, 2070

Retirement age for Microsoft fixed at 35

In a recent development, Microsoft CEO Ramanathan Venkataraman (age 15, MCSD, MCSE, MCSA) said that due to extensive protests by labour unions, Microsoft would enforce retirement at age 35 with immediate effect. This is being done in accordance with the demands of the union for fresh minds and greater efficiency.

April 20, 2071

Joseph "Yo Man" Mason is youngest Grammy winner

This year's Grammies was a ceremony with a difference. It marked the first time where an artist won the award while still in his mother's womb. Rapper "Yo Man" Mason (age - second trimester) said that the fights between his father and mother were the major inspirations for his lyrics. This also represented the first time a Belly Fone(TM) was used. This microphone, which is actually a microwave beam directed at the belly is a prototype designed by Sony for the benefit of pre-natal babies. "Yo Man" Mason urged Sony to develop a similar hearing device for his kind since the sounds from the outside world sounded muffled from inside. All his records carry an "Under 18" label.

February 10, 2080

Historical "Self-Delivery" at Charaka Hospital

After teenage CEOs and Grammy winning pre-natals, we have a doctor who delivered himself. Shabesh Mishra (age 2 days) is the son of Dr. Dilip Mishra and Dr. Ananya Mishra, who is a paediatrician. Shabesh's parents used to discuss regularly about topics related to childbirth. Ananya, nearing her full term went to the hospital for her daily rounds when she started experiencing contractions. She was in her pre-dawn shift. Shabesh, who was in the middle of his morning workout, realized that he didn't have enough time to finish his somersault before he started coming out. So realizing that a C-section had to be done since he was caught upside down, he asked his mother to swallow a surgical grade precision lucas light saber.

He said that he had used the pioneering "inside-out" technique which is still being researched. After coming out, he finished the "inside-out" safely. Shabesh said that his workouts enabled him to wriggle out quickly and safely. Mother and son are hale and healthy.


Think I'm nuts? We'll see...

Friday, May 13, 2005

The phoenix from the dust - a tale of two dots (Grad School - Part 4)

This blog is in sequence, so please start reading from the bottom of the page. Thank you.

As I recover from the flashback with no item songs :(, I find that I have done no cleaning at all, with my sis sifting through the pile. She has reached the bottom and hands me two sheets of paper.

I find that its an article by another dot in the Gaussian curve, only two years older. One dot instantly empathizes with the other wanting to share the dot account with you.

-Italics spoken by the older dot-

Kindly call me God

In all our lives, of what humble little we've lived of it, there comes a time when we must be honest with ourselves, listen to our conscience, as some wise men might say, and to be objective of our achievements (or the lack of them). Like most stories of consequence, it all started in the rainy season when the cloud seemed to dull all hope over the horizon and when most of us sat down to write an SOP, the facts of life are all painfully clear - you're still only as good as you were yesterday, and maybe you were great until the day you were born...

Let's call them the Honest Few, more for what they aspired to be than what they were. Well, I'll be the last to say honesty gets you an edge when you're apping. You can call me 2080, for that would truly represent my score in an exam that mattered then
(note-then). Amongst my comrades in the Honest Few were Barrel and Sage, more for appearance than any relevance to character.

Fall 2002

Come October, all of us were busy 'proffing'. Now, proffing in its extreme sense involved getting a few professors in the university to know your name, and wondering if a student of your academic credentials might be the next star of his research group. An honest appeal on our part ranged from potentially pathbreaking ideas in applied physics, to having wondered about gravity at a very young age, to aspiring for a Nobel/Fields Medal a few years down the line. Note the word 'potential' (There is such a thing as modesty, folks!!).

And then the profs replied with a variety of reasons all of which did not do our chances of an admit with an RA and tuition waiver any good...

The Barrel stormed into my room one hot afternoon. After the objects in my room settled down to his entry, he spoke: "What the heck? He is going on a fishing trip indefinitely!! Hope his rod never hooks bait again...". Apparently, the prof had given the barrel an invitation not to bother him again.

That night, just as I was about to turn off the lights and smoke a much-favored Gold Flake in solitude, the Sage entered. "Life seems to revolve around the irrelevant. This guy claims he's retiring next week", he said.

Meanwhile, our SOPs were slowly but steadily heading nowhere. In the mess, where all talks of life's happenings occur, the Barrel asked us in confidence, "Comrades, why not SOPs from the internet?". "Most noble suggestion!", said the Sage. "2080, chalo cyber cafe!". "But same SOP, three chaps, same college, same department => bump, macchan!", I protested.

The Barrel, tired of terrorizing the mess workers, spoke, "Hey Ram! No wonder you are EEE! Let's app to different places! If I read motors/generators anymore I'll go crazy!!". As the light dawned on me, the Sage dropped his post-dinner pearl of wisdom: "Let's cross bridges when we come to them...".

But alas, most searches with noble aims are wasted journeys. By now, my SOP was two sides of a blank paper and my heart was heavier than a photocopier. There are occasions when time comes to a standstill, when every moment becomes an epoch. But for some obscure reason, beyond the reach of my limited faculties, this was not one of them! Day chased night, and week chased week with ungraceful vigour, as October flew by and November entered my already crowded life. The Sage and the Barrel had gone underground, just vanished, like a guerilla army that retreats into the jungle just to chill out and then comes back to shed blood with renewed zeal. My proffing had yielded, even by the most benevolent yardstick, marginal gains. I was genuinely sorry for all those learned men at the univs I was apping to, on whom I intended inflicting my company.

Then, one bright morning, as the world was moving on its own business, as a technical festival was grabbing me by the neck and strangling me slowly, the Sage came up to me and said, "Boss, SOP over!". Even as he walked away towards the bank we had on campus, I was seeing an entire arsenal of thermonuclear weapons exploding around me, a sudden flashing light that left everything else dark, and that light wasn't coming from me! In short, I was shaken, not stirred. Rumors were rife that the Barrel was onto something big. That night, I sought an appointment with the Sage.

In his abode, sitting with two sheets of paper containing the details of such a man I never knew could exist, I realized that the Sage was truly done with his SOP. After this sordid encounter, I knew that the time had come for me to lay aside all notions of modesty and truth. It was SOP time, people! They say life begins at 30. I say it is better at 60 and after 90 things are nicer than ever! After a quarter, you are not yourself of course! It was in this advanced state of awareness that I started on my SOP. The next morning, going through it, I realized that there was nothing like smirnoff to get cracking on an SOP...

December brought its own events. It saw us eager to finish the year and see the next one if it would be any different from the ones we've lived before. Yes, such is hope!! The Barrel had started making his bi-weekly trips to the post office. Each visit to that establishment meant apps for three univs were on their way to the USA. And a pious prayer at a temple after every such trip. And so did the Sage and so, following their footsteps, did I. But then, I put in a little extra that I didn't tell the rest about: a visit to the venugopal temple praying that some dope did not lose my app packet, or that my app wasn't mistaken for junk mail and fed to a shredder by some overworked admissions officer...

The New Year dawned, actually crept in over me, since the last I remembered of the previous year were the lights and sights of Downtown, the local watering hole. But I'm digressing! As I was saying, the New Year dawned and we were through with the apping and now, a bi-weekly temple visit was about all we could do.

March-April 2003

Come April, temperatures soared, as did our blood pressures. No news of admits, the odd bump friends received, but on our front, nothing. Yet, one hot afternoon, the Barrel stormed in, puffing like a steam engine on an incline. He rested his comfortable posterior on my chair and looked into the wall with an empty gaze. All he said was, "Bump from SUNY-B! And I thought it was a safe...". The Sage met with a similar fate a couple of days later from USF, which he shrugged off with his usual I-knew-about-this-all-along-but-chose-to-do-nothing expression. By now, I was, well, really scared to say the least. Like a hunter's gun-bearer who's in on the shoot for a lark and suddenly finds his master consumed and digested by a tiger, like a lion tamer seeing his lion salivate every time he entered the ring. Plainly put in college vocab, I was psyched shitless! And in a few days, I got bumped from a place that thanked me for having considered them blah blah blah...

But then to every night comes a dawn. Even to that seemingly endless night, there came a dawn. The Sage scored the first hit: "RPI admit, macchan!", he announced in the mess. The Barrel was observed performing a jig in the corridor and when I went to see the spectacle, he shouted, "VTech admit! Oooh yeaah!!". And so the decisions started coming in, gradually, but each as exciting as the previous one. Finally, when the lot had come through, the Sage had five admits, the Barrel and I had four each.

Over a quiet drink, when the Barrel was, for some strange reason, quiet, I popped the question: "People, if you were to write your SOP in one sentence, what would you say?"

The Sage considered my question and its implications. He seemed to take it in, savour the taste it left behind and then spoke these words: "KCMG". I was by now well past and didn't bother asking who or what KCMG was.

The Barrel did the honours though; "What the f*** is KCMG?!!"

The Sage replied, "Kindly Call Me God...". The Barrel, who'd managed to inverse bump a couple of univs., let out a sudden low frequency sound of indeterminate origin. We looked to him to have his SOP summary.

He said, "Aaah! Sage, tu to modesty nikla! No wonder you got bumped on the house. Mereko dekh, I've inverse bumped two and I've got an RA lined up at the place I'm headed to. If thats not studgiri..."

"So what does your SOP say?", I enquired.

"GCMG...", the Barrel said.

This abbreviation business was getting out of hand! "And what the hell is GCMG?!!", the Sage demanded.

The Barrel gave us his patient lop-sided smile, and a most forgiving expression before saying, "God Calls Me God...".

Thats when I passed out...



Admit: letter of admission
Apping: applying to a university
Bump: A regret letter from a univ giving you a reason for not being admitted
Inverse Bump: A rare phenomenon where the applicant rejects a univ because he's got a better offer on hand
SOP: Statement of Purpose
Univ: University
Machan: A term that used to mean brother-in-law but now used by pretty much every college student

that's where the older dot merges along with the newer dot into the curve...

Forwarding the Cause of Gauss... (Grad School - Part 3)

Come January, the moment (or rather, months) of truth. Wooly is the data miner feeding me regularly on admits given to people from every corner of India. We join the group on Yahoo which has a whole bunch of people like us, hoping to learn something.

But it only serves to prove what I was talking about - the random process. We have endless hours of rantings on the phone and on the net - hey, that guy had 1200 and got into that school which bumped me; how the hell did the guy with 65% make that school? and on and on...

A very sobering experience until we become third persons - we start to throw facts in our sleep, I become another statistic in my factfile. People who want to overcome short tempers can try this once - you'll become too tired to shout after a point.

My theory of the ideal random process picks up more and more followers. Wooly has a small correction to make - he says it is pseudo-random since he is always on the wrong side of the mean.

After a lot of effort, showing-off and a looot of money, I find that I have only served as a small dot in the Gaussian curve - hey this could be a pathbreaking project! (and the process goes on)...

The fall before the fall (Grad School - Part 2)

Now that my wordy worries were over, the next thing was school hunting and apping - around November. Enough to start off the next string of discussions - 'safe' apps, 'dream' apps, 'mid' apps. The million dollar question was when to apply - should I finish off my apps first and worry later; or should I muster up some 'pathbreaking' project so that my app doesn't become cow fodder (or shredder fodder, as is the latest fad)?

Wooly finished his apps about two months before me and was living his life while I was running from shop to shop searching for the cheapest print cursing all those schools who colored their forms in pschyedelic hues. The college chose to conduct its exams at this precise moment (of course, what's more important than my application?) which I managed to get through with some usual pinch preparation (similar to pinch hitting, if u follow cricket).

Now we were all waiting, debating on 'rolling' apps, 'deadline' apps etc., trying to 'get into' the minds of the graduate secretaries in the USA.

Some apping jargon:

Apping: Applying
Safe: Schools you think you are too good for
Dream: Schools where your apps are cow fodder, whatever you do
Mid: Schools which you think are good with a good chance of vice versa
Rolling: Schools which evaluate (supposedly) apps as they come in
Deadline: Schools which start evaluating only after the deadline is up (though the existence of such schools is seriously doubted)

Pride comes before the fall (fall 2005, i.e.) (Grad School - Part 1)

One of the perennial paradigms of mankind (read electrical engineer) has been the hunt for the ideal random process. I guess I hit pretty close to the mark with this one - ADMITS!

Now as I laze in the summer heat with a pile of rejects, I can hear my mom asking me for about the googolth time to clean my room. I get down to the task (way to go, mom), albeit with a lot of help from my sis. From the bottom of the pile comes a dust-laden Barron's followed by some arcane 'special' word-lists containing words no one in their right mind would use. My eyes get misty and my nose starts running (wait a minute - nostalgia doesn't cause running noses; must be my dust allergy).

Oh those days - caring about nothing else but words; when dropping new words was a fashion statement - reading (supposedly) through Robert Ludlum's terrifying forewords just to catch my friend (lets call him wooly) unawares with that one beast of a word - laughing at my CAT friends who had to figure out somethin like this: X always sits next to Y, T doesn't like Y's dress, Z sits 2 seats from Y, X goes to the same school as T. So who is the king of Puzzlona?

Scorning the GRE math, going around like I was the brother of a certain Willy Shakes... All this showing-off until me and wooly finished within 10 points of each other and 50 points off the magic 1600. We were crowned official wordsmiths of our college with everyone asking us which school we would pick from the top 10...